Take Pride: Be Your Unabashed Self with Music

music therapy with LGBT clients

LGBT-friendly mental health and music therapy services

Become Your Authentic Self Through Music

Since June is Pride Month, I wanted to share some snapshots of my work providing music therapy with LGBT clients. Over the course of my career as a therapist and educator, I’ve worked with LGBT and asexual teens who were struggling with their sexual orientation and worried about how their family would treat them if they knew, to terminally-ill adults charting their own end-of-life course with their chosen family. Music therapy offered them opportunities where they could explore and understand their inner thoughts and emotions so that they could be more of their authentic self.

Wanting to Live as Your Authentic Self

Many people struggle to live as their full, authentic self. Societal norms and the expectations of loved ones, or the messages received from other people over the years, can make it difficult, if not impossible, to know who you are. Still, for others, it can even feel or quite literally be unsafe to be who you are.

This is especially true if you are LGBT. Even more so if you are also a transgender person of color, as a vast majority of transgender people murdered are also women of color. (* Note: Last year was the deadliest one yet measured for transgender people and unfortunately, 2018 could be just as deadly if not more so.) As well, LGBT older adults face increased risks since they are 4 x less likely to have children to assist them with their care and they generally have fewer financial resources than the general public. While at the same time they may have increased health needs and may be reluctant to pursue medical care due to potential discrimination from healthcare providers.

Why LGBT Rights Matter to Me

While I don’t identify as gay, LGBT rights are near and dear to my heart. As a young woman, my gay friends helped me learn a lot about myself and relationships. Having studied at a Catholic university with strong music, music theatre, and theatre programs, some of my best college experiences were with my gay male friends. But even before college, one of my first roommates after I graduated high school was a gay man 20 years my senior who helped open my eyes to the lives and challenges faced by those who came from completely different backgrounds than I did with my working middle-class suburban upbringing. The people with whom I came into regular contact living downtown with him helped me learn to be grounded and open-hearted to the deep pain and struggles of others.

Who I am today as an adult was partly inspired by what I learned while living with him about how social justice issues intersect, as well as what resiliency looks like in spite of poverty and oppression. This was especially helpful to me as a young woman struggling with mental issues who was looking for direction and purpose in life.

My Experiences Providing Music Therapy to LGBT Clients

Given my professional background, I have had the opportunity to work with LGBT clients of all ages in mental health and end-of-life care settings. Clients from each age group and setting were faced with unique challenges. Below you’ll learn more about what these challenges were and how music was used to help them become more of their authentic self.

kids and teens

Through the years I’ve worked with teens who were questioning their sexual orientation and wondering if they were “normal.” They worried about how their parents would respond if they came “out” to them. This is a valid concern as parental rejection is a primary reason for homelessness or risk-of-homelessness among LGBT youth.

As well, some of these teens were starting to learn how to navigate early romantic relationships in terms of boundaries, communication, and managing the feelings of longing and lust. While these things can be challenging for all teens and even adults, LGBT youth can face an increased rate of violence within these early romantic relationships. According to the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) cited by the Centers for Disease Control:

  • 23% of LGB students who had dated or went out with someone during the 12 months before the survey had experienced sexual dating violence in the prior year
  • 18% of LGB students had experienced physical dating violence
  • 18% of LGB students had been forced to have sexual intercourse at some point in their lives.

Some of the ways music were used in our work together was through:

  • Singing or listening to songs they chose and then discussing the song’s meaning to them
  • Improvising vocally or on an easy-to-play melodic or percussion instrument
  • Song-writing.

I suggested these activities to help them:

  • Find ways to safely and positively express themselves
  • Enhance self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Cultivate personal insight and awareness
  • Explore different perspectives of thought and being.

Adult family members of hospice clients

As a hospice music therapist, I came to learn that families come in all shapes and forms. Sometimes families are large and extended, while others are small. Some families are biological, while others are chosen. When working with pre-bereaving and grieving families it’s important to provide them with the time and space to be able to share their thoughts and feelings. With LGBT family members (married, biological, and chosen), it’s important to also be aware of the ways in which their grief may be complicated due to discrimination faced by society, lack of legal rights if their relationship wasn’t legally recognized, or a culmination of losses associated with the death of their loved one.

When working with gay family members or same-sex couples, I would use music the same way as I would with any family member in their situation. This includes:

  • Singing or listening to songs they selected and sharing meaningful memories associated with them
  • Song-writing
  • Making music by playing small, easy-to-play percussion instruments.

Using music in these ways allowed for:

  • Opportunities to express and process their feelings
  • Engage with their loved one in a deep, profound way. This was especially true if their family member had Alzheimer’s or some other cognitive impairment
  • Create positive memories and experiences of joy with their loved one at this time
  • Say what needs to be said and resolve what needs to be resolved.

Adults with a terminal illness

Sometimes in my work as a hospice music therapist, I would work with an LGBT patient. Oftentimes the family makeup looked quite different. Chosen family, friends who were like family, helped provide care, in addition to the patient’s partner, if they had one. Since these experiences were before same-sex marriage became legal, I knew that they might have extra end-of-life care needs. For example, a reluctance to go to the doctor due to a lack of trust in the healthcare system. As well, there could be concerns about their well-being of their partner since they had no legal rights as heir. There could also be estrangement from their biological family.

Some of the ways I would use music to engage with them were:

  • Singing or listening to songs they selected and sharing meaningful memories associated with them
  • Listening to songs and discussing the relevance of the lyrics to their life
  • Improvising vocally or on an easy-to-play melodic or percussion instrument
  • Song-writing.

The music helped them to:

  • Manage physical and psychological pain
  • Say what needed to be said and resolve what needed to be resolved
  • Engage in life review
  • Feel validated and heard
  • Find courage, strength, and meaning
  • Engage with their loved ones in a deep, profound way
  • Experience positive moments with their loved ones

The Courage to Be Your Authentic Self

One of the beautiful things about music is that it can help us to cultivate the courage to live as our unabashed selves. Music can help us create meaning and beauty out of chaos and pain. Music can help us to better understand who we are and discover who we want to be. During this Pride month and beyond, I hope that you will have the courage to be your unabashed self.




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